In what many see as the climax to Jacob’s life story, God instructed the patriarch to move to Bethel and erect an altar (Genesis 35:1). Before embarking on this new stage of his life, Jacob took care of some unfinished business. He ordered his entire household to “put away” any “foreign gods” they might have accrued, to purify themselves and to change clothes (Genesis 35:2 NASB). Of the three directives, the first was the most important as evidenced by the fact that it alone is explicitly said to have been followed (Genesis 35:4).
So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. (Genesis 35:4 NASB)This incident marks the first of four burials in Genesis 35, a chapter of prominent transitions (Genesis 35:4, 8, 19, 29).
The buried items are most commonly rendered “foreign gods” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) but are also translated “alien gods” (MSG), “idols” (CEV), “pagan idols” (NLT), and “strange gods” (KJV). Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) speculates that they were pagan icons based upon the verb Jacob uses - “‘Get rid of’ (sûr) elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. II Kings 18:4; I Chronicles 30:14) describes moving cult objects (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 617).”
There has been debate as to how Jacob’s household came into possession of these artifacts. It has been suggested that Jacob’s family acquired some of them in their pillage of Shechem in the preceding chapter (Genesis 34:27-29). The patriarch’s edict would also include the “household gods” (teraphim) that his wife Rachel had stolen from her father (Genesis 31:19, 32).
Some have questioned why Jacob buries these idols instead of destroying them. Jacob does not grind them to powder as Moses later did to the idolatrous golden calf (Exodus 32:20). Is Jacob hedging his bets, taking measures to reacquire these gods if need be?
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) writes:
What is the significance of burying gods? Is it a black magic ritual of interment of guardian figures? Is it a preparatory rite in holy war to activate the “terror of God” against the enemy, and thus not a real burial, but a laying aside of religious figurines? Or is it a forsaking of the father gods?..The best parallel to Jacob’s actions seems to be that of Joshua, who (also at Shechem) commanded the elders “to put away the gods...that your fathers served” (Joshua 24:14). The presence of such “other gods” will be a barrier preventing legitimate service of Yahweh. The language of Jacob also matches that of Samuel, who calls Israel to the ancient covenant ritual of renouncing foreign gods. (Hamilton, Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 375).Shechem is the place where idols are tossed aside and though our “foreign gods” are likely not in statuette form, we still create them today.
What idols do you house? What do you need to bury to better serve God? What unfinished business do you need to complete? Have you ever had a Shechem moment where you rededicated your life to God? Why did Jacob not simply destroy the idols?
Jacob realized that he could not serve God fully while in possession of idols. Jacob’s situation is a microcosm of his descendants’ spiritual predicament. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) explains:
Israel cannot either leave the land or kill all the Canaanites. Israel must find a way to stay in the land with the Canaanites and yet practice faithfulness. The way chosen to do this without either destructiveness or accommodation is by way of radical symbolization. Israel engages in dramatic ritual activity as a mode of faithfulness. It is apparent that this ritual (later used at Shechem, cf. Joshua 24:23) permits Israel to be Israel in the land. (Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 283)Jacob’s act of religious exclusivism would become a precursor to the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). James McKeown compares, “Another traditional feature of Israelite faith already observed in patriarchal worship is the absence of images of Yahweh. Images of gods other than Yahweh are mentioned, and they seem to have been greatly valued (McKeown, Genesis (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 358).”
Shmuel Klitsner adds:
Though later in the Bible, idol worship warrants the death penalty, in pre-Sinai narratives this is not the case, as explicit in Genesis 35:2-4, where Jacob himself instructs his household members to rid themselves of ‘foreign gods.’ There, the only consequence is the need for the offenders to purify themselves and change their clothing. (Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, 115)Significantly, this religious precedent was set at Jacob’s own initiative as the mandate to remove the idols was not part of God’s instructions (Genesis 35:1). Jacob instinctively senses that possessing foreign gods is not conducive to the new life that he was preparing to live for God. With this pronouncement, Jacob finally makes a commitment to God alone. This represents dramatic spiritual maturation. John H. Walton (b. 1952) concludes that “God’s patient work in his life has resulted in a transformation of character that may have seemed beyond reach in the earlier chapters (Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, 636).”
Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) explains, “Jacob understands immediately that he has been called not just to physical relocation but to spiritual repurification. He leaves off thinking about matters of international trade, safety, and justice, and focuses on his orientation to the divine. He sees for the first time that the central question is the question of false or foreign gods (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 501).”
What steps have you made in your spiritual progress? Is it ever too late for a new spiritual beginning? How do you know if you are growing?
“Growth is the only evidence of life.” - John Henry Newman (1801-1890)